A Wildlife Article from All-Creatures.org

Dugong Functionally Extinct In China

From SpeciesUnite.com
September 2022

The gentle giants of the sea have not been seen in China for over 14 years, with scientists citing habitat destruction and hunting as key factors in their decline.

Photo credit Patrick Louisy

The dugong is now functionally extinct in China, according to scientists, with no sightings of the giant, gentle-natured marine mammal recorded since 2008.

Alongside human-induced habitat destruction, fishing, ship strikes, and hunting are key threats that have resulted in the dugong’s decline, according to the new study by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“The likely disappearance of the dugong in China is a devastating loss. Their absence will not only have a knock-on effect on ecosystem function, but also serves as a wake-up call – a sobering reminder that extinctions can occur before effective conservation actions are developed,” said Professor Samuel Turvey of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology who co-authored the research published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

The dugong frequented China's southern waters for centuries, but from 1975 onwards, their population began to "decrease rapidly." In 1988 the marine mammal was classified as a grade one national key protected animal by the Chinese state council, which technically affords it the highest level of protection.

Dugongs are dependent upon seagrass, a specific marine habitat that is being rapidly degraded by human impacts, from coastal development to water pollution. Despite seagrass restoration and recovery efforts a key conservation priority in China, the continued habitat destruction caused a "rapid population collapse", researchers believe.

“In 2007, we tragically documented the likely extinction of China’s unique Yangtze River dolphin. Sadly, our new study shows strong evidence of the regional loss of another charismatic aquatic mammal species in China – sadly, once again driven by unsustainable human activity,” said Turvey.

Photo credit Patrick Louisy

The researchers conducted extensive interview surveys in local fishing communities across four southern maritime provinces in China. To build further evidence of potential dugong presence in those areas, they also reviewed historical data covering past dugong distribution in China.

"Through interview surveys, we gathered valuable information that was previously not available for making evidence-based evaluations of the status of dugongs in the region,” said Dr Heidi Ma, Postdoctoral Researcher at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and also an author of the study. “This not only demonstrates the usefulness of ecological knowledge for understanding species’ status, but also helps us engage local communities and to investigate possible drivers of wildlife decline and potential solutions for mitigation."

The authors say that they would ‘welcome any possible future evidence’ that dugongs might still persist in China. However, this exhaustive survey found no recent evidence of dugong survival across their known distribution in mainland Chinese waters. The authors now recommend that the species’ regional status should be reassessed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).

While the dugong still exists in other parts of the world, including coastal waters off tropical and sub-tropical countries from East Africa to Vanuatu, and as far north as the southwestern islands of Japan, they are globally threatened due to human activities and listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

According to the UN Environment Programme, up to 7 percent of seagrass habitats are lost each year. The majority are destroyed by unrestricted fishing, climate catastrophe, and pollution from the agricultural and industrial sectors.

“One by one we are witnessing a vanishing act of key species across the planet. The functional extinction of the dugong in China serves as the latest wake-up call that industrial fishing, hunting, and habitat loss need our urgent attention and action,” Seaspiracy director Ali Tabrizi told Plant-Based News.

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